Hard Times

Europe’s Growing Crisis of Abandoned Babies

As parents run out of the means to feed and care for their children, the number of infants being left at churches and centers is rising sharply. By Barbie Latza Nadeau.

Lili K. / Corbis

There is no surveillance camera overlooking the cordoned-off “baby hatch” for abandoned infants attached to the Mangiagialli clinic in central Milan, so no one knows exactly who left a tiny four-pound baby boy named Mario there late last week. The newborn was dressed in a brand-new blue sleeper, and his caretaker had tucked a bottle of formula and a few changes of clothing beside him before sliding him into the protected incubator. Mario’s keeper then closed the gray plastic door and walked away. A weight-sensor alarm in the incubator alerted nurses at the Mangiagialli hospital, who then opened the hatch from the other side and took the tiny infant to the neonatal ward. Apart from a low birth weight, he was in perfect condition, even though there is no way to find out anything about his family history, including his ethnicity. Nurses then changed the sheets in the incubator and reset the alarm so the hatch would be ready for the next abandoned baby.

Baby hatches like the one in Milan are springing up all over Europe. They are a modern take on the old-style foundling wheels used in medieval times, when Roman mothers placed their unwanted offspring in revolving cribs that spun them safely into the confines of convents. Many of the abandoned babies born back then were out of wedlock or through adulterous liaisons. But the use of modern baby hatches, like the one where Mario was left in Milan, is growing rapidly across Europe because parents are unable to financially support their children.

Hard statistics are difficult to come by, since individual hospitals determine their own privacy policies about whether to release information about abandoned children to the public, but the number of orphaned infants available for adoption has risen by as much as 20 percent in Italy and Greece in the last two years, according to Caritas and SOS Villages, which run a joint, Europe-wide program to help struggling families before they resort to abandoning their infants. The agencies say as many as 1,200 babies and young children have been abandoned in Greece in the last year alone, and nearly 750 have been abandoned in Italy, up from 400 the year before.

“Unless a solution is reached, children and families continue to suffer for their new poverty,” says Luca Taborelli, who runs the Greek arm of the joint program. “This is especially important with small children, because parents were no longer able to feed them.”

Newborns such as Mario may never know their real parents, and will likely be adopted within months. The hospital where he was left received more than 500 inquiries when news of his abandonment made headlines in Italy. His case highlighted just how devastating the effects of austerity and poverty are becoming on Europe’s youngest citizens. But sadder still is the growing number of cases of abandoned young children who do know their parents and are being left at schools and daycare providers. Last spring, four young children, including a week-old baby, were left at the Ark of the World Daycare center in central Athens in just one week, as austerity measures led to job cuts and a decline in social services. One 2-year-old named Natasha was left with a note pinned to her sweater: “I will not be coming to pick up Natasha today because I cannot afford to feed her. Please take good care of her. I’m sorry.” A day later, a 1-year-old was left and never picked up.

Abandoning a child in the European Union is a crime punishable by prison time and hefty fines, but many countries overlook these crimes if the child is given up for economic reasons and left in a safer place, like a church or school. Italy and Greece both have clauses under which women can give birth anonymously. Women who opt for “concealed deliveries” are granted immunity from prosecution if they leave their babies at the hospital. Eleven (Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Portugal, and Slovakia) of the European Union’s 27 countries allow the use of baby hatches, and make special concessions for anyone known to leave an infant there because the person is not abandoning the child on the streets. In many countries, parents have 90 days to come back and claim their child if they change their minds. If not, the babies will be put up for legal adoption. Italy’s baby hatches, including one at the Vatican’s Santo Spirito hospital, have posters in six languages meant to help comfort mothers making what is surely a tough decision: “Don’t abandon your baby. Leave it with us.”

Supporters of the hatches argue that their existence offers desperate mothers a safe option that will inevitably give the child a better life by decreasing abortion, preventing infanticide, and stopping other forms of more reckless abandonment—such as leaving children on doorsteps or killing them and dumping them in garbage bins. But not everyone agrees with the use of the modern foundling wheel. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, or UNCRC, wants them banned, saying they deny the child the basic right to know who his or her parents are. The agency argues that instead of the hatches, struggling mothers should be given resources and support to keep the child, even if that means eventually giving it up for legal adoption.

“Baby boxes do not operate in the best interest of the child or the mother,” says UNCRC spokesperson Maria Herczog. “They encourage women to give birth in unsafe and life-threatening conditions.”

That may be, but in Mario’s case in Milan, no one may ever know his past—where he was born, who his mother is, or why she gave him up—but at least now he will have a future.